Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original by Robin D. G. Kelley is the first biography to put the idiosyncratic music and eccentric behavior of this jazz legend into factual context. With unprecedented access to Monk's family and records, Kelley dispels many of the myths around the eccentric pianist and the psychiatric, legal, and professional challenges he faced before he died in 1982. Through it all, he renders Monk's world in rich detail, from hardscrabble North Carolina roots to the demanding and uncertain life of the working jazz musician. Kelley, on sabbatical from the University of Southern California, spoke to me from Oxford University, where he is the Harmsworth Professor of American History.
You write about Thelonious Monk getting up from the piano and dancing around in circles on stage, falling asleep at the keyboard, sporting strange hats, staring off into space and wandering out of nightclubs during gigs. On eccentricity alone, I can see why he'd be a good subject for a book. But what were you really after?
For me, Monk had been an obsession—aesthetically and culturally—pretty much from the moment I was introduced to his music as a teenage wannabe jazz piano player. But when the subject of Thelonious Monk comes up, the eccentricities are what people talk about first, as you just did. Descriptions of his music become conflated with descriptions of his behavior, onstage and off. I wanted to disentangle those things, understand who Thelonious Monk was as a human being, and who he was as an artist.